Cruising is a la mode in 2024, a form of travel enticing more and more wannabe mariners every year. It is perhaps no surprise then that I would become swept up in the national ocean-fever and embark on my first trip recently, a circular route from Brisbane out to some far-flung islands in the Pacific.
I should say it was not my idea to go, but rather was driven by my teenage son who has been quietly campaigning for some years. I was reluctant to go, imagining myself developing cabin fever very quickly.
Mid voyage, as I sat in the expanse of blue hundreds of miles from anywhere, I pondered whether cruising life was good for the brain.
Many travellers seemed to have a bottomless capacity for doing nothing, fully embracing the passivity of their situation and the abdication of their usual daily responsibilities. This was no doubt good for their grey matter.
Personally, I could do it for a while, but I would then become restless and feel I should be doing something. It created in me a mild sense of ennui if I’m honest, and this probably nullified the brain benefits that those more well-adjusted could enjoy.
Perhaps I should meditate more.
I found myself eagerly awaiting the regular trivia sessions. At least this would serve as mental stimulation I thought.
Though I filled my brain with some useful facts (did you know that bats are not actually blind despite the well-known simile?) I was often left deflated, for instance at my inability to name any Taylor Swift song or identify any horcrux from the Harry Potter heptalogy.
My ignorance left me feeling mildly despondent and obsolete.
Some of my fellow seafarers found themselves lulled into restful deep sleep every night by the gentle rocking of the vessel, in so doing enhancing their glymphatic flow and clearing their brains of the harmful proteins that might otherwise damage the brain.
This was not the case for me. As I lay in bed each movement, in my mind, signalled a threat – was a rogue wave coming our way? How long would it take someone to come to our rescue? How could you even mount an effective rescue of the 4000 people on board?
Such cognitive processes are known as catastrophising, but knowing their technical term did not alleviate the stress and the constant pumping of cortisol would not have been good for my brain.
And then there was the abundant food – delicious and free but enough to induce a metabolic disaster. Refined carbs, sugar, and carbs everywhere. My willpower failed me multiple times as I helped myself to cookies and desserts.
My stressed brain, like the brain of anyone experiencing this state, sought out these energy dense foods with unfettered abandon, driven by a perceived threat to survival. Finally, no cruise – at least from Australia – is complete without a cohort of hardened drinkers, whose mission seems to be to remain in a constant state of inebriation.
It is hard not to be caught up in the drinking culture, especially when there is not much else to do, and alcohol seems like a good antidote to stress (it’s not, obviously).
I admit I indulged a little too much (this did not help the quality of my sleep either) and I suspect my neurons were happy to see me back on dry land.
In summary, whether your brain is better off after a cruise probably depends more on your own personality and sensibilities than anything else. Me? Give me the bush any day.
Kailas Roberts is a psychogeriatrician and author of Mind your brain The Essential Australian Guide to Dementia now available at all good bookstores and online. Visit yourbraininmind.com or